Sarah Larson on the true-crime podcast “Dirty John,” a collaboration between Wondery and the Los Angeles Times.and more »
“Dirty John,” a suspenseful and psychologically intense true-crime series released in its entirety last week, is the first podcast by the veteran newspaper journalist Christopher Goffard. It’s a new kind of hybrid: a podcast-and-print collaboration, between Wondery and the Los Angeles Times. It was released chapter by chapter over the week, beginning one Sunday and concluding the next, in the style of an investigative print series. It’s garnered some five million listens and has been the No. 1 podcast on iTunes for much of the past two weeks. Its aesthetic is a kind of journalism noir, blending entertainment and news in powerful, sometimes unnerving ways.
The podcast begins with an autopsy report: an Orange County assistant district attorney reading a description of stab wounds from a homicide in the summer of 2016. We don’t learn the identity of the victim or the assailant. Then we go back two years, to 2014, to the story of a successful Newport Beach interior designer, Debra Newell, who is fifty-nine and divorced; John Meehan, a handsome, seemingly perfect man she meets online; and Debra’s grown children, who mistrust him. In the print series, “Dirty John” is stylishly designed, with large photographs of its subjects and expensive real estate; it features pull quotes such as “The most devious, dangerous, deceptive person I ever met,” styled like tabloid headlines, in maroon capital letters. The podcast’s logo is a red rose and a latex-gloved hand holding a hypodermic needle on a black background, like a horror-movie poster, or a “Flowers in the Attic” cover. The theme music, one of the show’s strongest aesthetic choices, is a gorgeously fiddle-heavy song called “Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend,” by Tracy Bonham. Goffard liked the song because it “allowed us to transcend the setting and suggest some of the more universal themes at play,” he told me. “The image in my mind was like a creature from a fairy tale, or like a shape-shifting goblin from a swamp, who was invading this Southern California family and devouring the matriarch—and they have to take their stand against it.”
Goffard is a fan of podcasts—he likes “This American Life,” “Invisibilia,” and “S-Town”—but what influenced “Dirty John” more than any of them, he told me, was “the old-time radio drama that I used to listen to as a kid.” Growing up, he’d get tapes in the mail or at science-fiction conventions: “Escape,” “Suspense,” “Quiet Please,” “Lights Out,” Orson Welles’s “The Shadow,” “The Lives of Harry Lime.” He told me about an episode of “Escape” that he loved called “Leiningen Versus the Ants.” “If you want twenty terrifying minutes, I’ll send you a link,” he said. I laughed—in these troubled times, ants seemed like a quaint, benign foe—and Goffard was patient, trying to make me understand. “Oh, this is about man-eating ants,” he said.
“So much can be conjured by the sound of the human voice,” Goffard said. “But this is a work of journalism, a work of fact.” In “Dirty John,” he said, the radio-drama influence is “married to the exhaustive reporting that narrative journalism of this type requires.” Goffard’s reporting is indeed exhaustive; the podcast makes use of extensive audio interviews, archival audio from phone recordings and wedding videos, 911 calls, and more. He wrote both the print series and the podcast, which was produced in three and a half months. The story is so crazy and terrifying that if it were fiction you might not find it plausible; its themes include trust, family relationships, deception and self-deception, and the insidious side of forgiveness. On the podcast, Goffard speaks in calm, smooth tones but uses phrases such as “black-hearted Lothario” and “a treacly bonbon with a core of arsenic.”
In Episode 1, Debra, a churchgoing evangelical Christian who’s been married and divorced four times, joins an over-fifty dating site called OurTime. She goes on a few dates and is disappointed to discover that the men who show up are older and less attractive than their profiles indicate. Then she meets John Meehan, who “checked every box.” He’s “smart, charming, and articulate”; tall and fit, with a handsome face and a wrestler’s build. He says he’s an anesthesiologist who recently served with Doctors Without Borders in Iraq and has houses in Newport Beach and Palm Springs. Over dinner, he listens to Debra, asks questions, and is curious about the workings of her interior-design business. “I thought it was a good trait that he was more interested in me than himself,” Debra says. (One of the many grim realizations for the listener in this story comes here—recognizing the gratitude we’ve felt in similar moments, and knowing that for Debra it’s going in a bad direction.) There are red flags early on: John makes a pass at Debra too aggressively and too soon; he dresses sloppily, like an overgrown frat boy, in shabby pastels and medical scrubs that Jacquelyn, one of Debra’s daughters, thinks “look like a costume.” There is no real evidence that he has houses, a car, or a job. Debra justifies some of these things and ignores others. Debra and John begin dating, and he treats her well. But the warning signs persist. Jacquelyn lives with her mother, and one day John discovers her near a safe where she keeps Birkin bags and other nice purses. “What do you have in the safe, kiddo?” he asks. “None of your business!” she says.
The red flags turn into alarm bells. (Mild spoilers follow.) Debra learns fairly quickly that John has lied to her—significantly—about who he is. He has a dark, scary past and, we can only assume, dark and scary intentions. But Debra doesn’t want to believe it, and how she navigates this fascinates us. Throughout, the story provides as many rattling insights about Debra’s psychology as it does about John’s. Like most of us at some point in our lives, she behaves irrationally in a romantic relationship. But she takes it terrifyingly far, making decisions that leave her and her family vulnerable. As we learn more about Debra’s background and family life—involving other trusting, forgiving, vulnerable women and dangerous men—the mystery of her behavior, and of human behavior in general, only deepens.
“Dirty John” unsettled me, especially in a week dominated by the flood of stories about Harvey Weinstein and other sexual predators. This cultural context heightened my unease about the show’s aesthetic: “Dirty John” plays like a thriller. It presents Debra in a respectful light, and in our phone conversation Goffard talked about her protectively. He said that Debra’s participation was motivated by her desire to help other women avoid bad situations. But the series’ almost pulp-like tone makes it seem like it’s accomplishing that worthy goal by scaring us a bit, as a Lifetime movie would. John is shown to be thoroughly evil—a descriptor used by several interviewees—and the story freely presents him as a monster. It does this journalistically, through legal documentation, jail records, first-person accounts, archival recordings, text messages, restraining orders, and so on. But it also does so narratively, with the kind of language we might hear in “Leiningen Versus the Ants.” Goffard seems to encourage an almost mythical impression of his subject’s evil. At one point, Goffard tells a lawyer that the lawyer’s description of John sounds “almost like the opposite of a religious experience, you know, where you meet someone holy and it changes your life? This is sort of the inverse of that. Like you looked into a void.” “That is so true,” the lawyer says, with emotion. “Because we all—we don’t want to believe the really bad things about people. We just don’t. We want to think that people are good. And when you meet somebody like this, and you realize, ‘I am sitting here in the presence of evil incarnate,’ you know that people like him really do exist.”
The tone of “Dirty John” can feel more lurid than the sophistication of its reporting deserves. “Usually, I’m very reserved in my judgments of people,” Goffard told me. “But this accumulation of ugliness and malevolence for so long makes you think, Look, if words like ‘black-hearted’ have any meaning at all, it’s because guys like this fulfill their definition, you know? I try not to go overboard. But I think this guy’s behavior speaks for itself.” It does speak for itself, and I would have welcomed a bit of editorial reeling it in.
The tone of the podcast’s advertising made me cringe a little, too—for example, when the show veered from a description of a woman fearing for her life to a boisterous ad for ZipRecruiter. We also hear ads for a “monthly murder-mystery box” called Hunt a Killer, which sends you clues from a “serial killer.” “It’s up to you to piece them together and find the killer before he finds you,” the ad says. “See if you qualify by taking their murder quiz.” Oof.
The show’s final episode is thrilling, horrifying, and expertly done, with a final scene like—well, like a bonbon with a core of arsenic. In the end, the series leaves you with a powerful set of thoughts and emotions about the darkest sides of the human need for love. What to take away about violent con men and the nature of criminality is a bit harder to parse—as are our thoughts about the evolution of the podcast, and the ever-disappearing boundaries between entertainment, traditional journalism, and audio storytelling.
Goffard and I talked about the strange power of podcasts, which can be emotionally affecting in ways we’re only beginning to sort out. I mentioned that I’d been unnerved by “S-Town,” which I loved in many ways but which, after the fervor that “Serial” had inspired, made me feel protective of its subjects, and of all subjects of podcasts about real-life recent crimes and tragedies. (On Monday, Tyler Goodson, one of the main subjects of “S-Town,” took a plea deal in a case involving the burglary and trespassing that he had discussed on the podcast. Whether information from the podcast would be admissible in a trial had been a point of contention.)
“Why do you think this happens, this intensity?” Goffard asked me. “Why is it generated by podcasts versus, say, a print story?” I said that I thought it had to do with hearing people’s voices, and the fact that the best podcast-makers are highly sophisticated storytellers, and that our digital era connects us and isolates us in overwhelming, novel ways. In this climate, podcasts feel especially intimate, personal, and affecting. “Does that make sense?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “But, I got to say, it’s kind of sobering as a veteran print guy.”
“I know,” I said.
“I mean, I think you’re right. I just don’t know what to do with it.”
“Neither do I,” I said.
“For me, print was always the be-all and end-all,” he said. “The ideal form your story can ever take. And now I’m questioning that. Because people are telling me that the podcast experience of ‘Dirty John’ is of a level of intensity and intimacy deeper than the printed story. So I don’t know what to do with that.”
Since the show’s release, Goffard said, other people affected by John Meehan have come forward. “I’ve heard from a number of his ex-girlfriends, including one—this is a detail I wish I could’ve gotten in the story, because it so well captures this guy. This girlfriend is going down to Costa Rica with him and they’re getting off a plane. And there’s a single mother on the plane with some luggage and a baby. And she turns to John, she takes one look at John, and she hands him her baby—a stranger. I’ve got to say, no stranger has ever handed me a baby,” Goffard said. “And that’s the spell this guy’s looks cast. He looked so authoritative and wholesome and responsible and disarming that you would hand him your child.”
Goffard said that, at the end of the final episode, he wanted to underscore—after an incredible sequence of drama and agony—“how successfully John was able to impersonate a normal human being, and how that left this abiding confusion in Debra and the mayhem that he left behind.” Goffard read me a passage from a book. “It’s just fascinating,” he said. “It’s from ‘The Bad Seed,’ by William March, and he’s talking about psychopaths. ‘These monsters of real life usually looked and behaved in a more normal manner than their actually normal brothers and sisters. They presented a more convincing picture of virtue than virtue presented of itself—just as the wax rosebud or the plastic peach seemed more perfect to the eye, more what the mind thought a rosebud or a peach should be than the imperfect or original from which it had been modeled.’ That, to me, explains John Meehan.”
dirty john,podcast,journalism,true crime